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Restricted Free Agents: The Cap Squeeze

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How will the draft class of 2014 fare entering restricted free agency?

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Atlanta Hawks Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The 2014 Draft Class was relatively heralded at the time. With luminaries such as Andrew Wiggins, who had been hyped for years, Joel Embiid, who was drawing comparisons to a new-age Hakeem Olajuwon, and a bevy of athletic guards and forwards, it was hard to imagine the class not turning out a solid group of stars and role players.

Four years later, it has been an up-and-down journey for the class. Embiid and Wiggins are the only players who received maximum extensions, but Embiid’s is conditioned upon his health and Wiggins’ contract may end up an albatross for the Wolves. Gary Harris (4 years $84 million) and T.J. Warren (4 years $50 million) have also received extensions that are relatively fairly priced, but, as a group, the 2014 draft class has received very few contract extensions.

This is sending most of the draft class into the restricted free agent market, which has been relatively disastrous for players after the TV cap boom that saw ridiculous contracts handed out across the NBA. Teams either capped themselves out due to that season, or are significantly more cautious in their approach. Kentavious-Caldwell Pope is probably not too happy he missed the boom by one season.

This summer, only nine teams are going to have significant cap space to overpay for players, which was traditionally thought as one of the ways to steal restricted free agents from other teams. From Danny Leroux’s article at The Athletic here, those teams are:

  1. Los Angeles Lakers - $48 million
  2. Chicago Bulls - $26 million
  3. Philadelphia 76ers - $24.6 million
  4. Atlanta Hawks - $23.9 million
  5. Indiana Pacers - $23 million
  6. Sacramento Kings - $21.9 million
  7. Dallas Mavericks - $20.7 million
  8. Brooklyn Nets - $15.4 million
  9. Utah Jazz - $15.2 million

Now, most of those teams can go up and down pretty quickly with their cap figures. The 76ers can clear about $8 million by stretching or trading Jerryd Bayless. The Jazz can use up all their space by bringing back Derrick Favors and Dante Exum. The Pacers have a mess of partially guaranteed contracts and player options.

The problem for the restricted free agents is that the teams with cap space have bigger game in their sights. The Lakers, who have the most cap space by far, are angling for LeBron James and Paul George. DeMarcus Cousins is also hanging around. Failing that, the Lakers will likely wait a season and go after Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, and Jimmy Butler. The 76ers are also in that hunt.

These teams are unlikely to use up their space to pursue any of these free agents, as none of them look to be the de facto “stars” that team may chase. It’s hard to even imagine an Otto Porter like scenario, as teams seem a bit more gun-shy with their cap space and, at the very least, the Nets could convince themselves that that Porter could fit well on any team. He is a prototypical superior 3-and-D player.

So who are these guys that are looking for money this season? The big names are:

  • Zach LaVine
  • Jabari Parker
  • Clint Capela
  • Aaron Gordon
  • Marcus Smart
  • Jusuf Nurkic
  • Julius Randle
  • Rodney Hood

It is hard to see any of these guys as true game changers. Clint Capela probably is the closest, but he also plays the position that is going through the most volatility in the NBA and his skill set is more narrowly defined by how good his teammates are.

It is hard to believe that the Lakers, after failing to get LeBron and Paul George, would settle on trying to steal Aaron Gordon or Jabari Parker to add to their young core at a near-max deal.

What is more likely to happen is that a lot of these guys are going to be gotten at below-market rates for their respective teams. If you can get the likes of Gordon, Randle, and LaVine around $12-15 million a year and they turn into quality starters or even stars, that is extremely good value.

This brings us to the Wolves. The Wolves were one of the few teams that extended their 2014 draft selection in Andrew Wiggins, giving him the full maximum that he could be paid. Now, the Wolves were certainly banking a leap forward from Wiggins last year rather than the continuous incremental steps that the young wing has taken throughout his career.

The interesting thing to watch this summer is how these restricted free agents are valued. The Wolves may have cost themselves quite a bit of money by investing in Wiggins early. It is possible that one of those teams with cap space may have seen Wiggins as a potential player that they could spend that space on, someone for a team like the Hawks or the Nets that they could start building around. But it is also possible the Wolves could have signed Wiggins for something closer to what Gary Harris got, around $21 million a year or so, rather than paying the full max.